7 Tips For Growing Great Lettuce
Often hailed as the ultimate beginner's vegetable, lettuce is indeed an easy crop to grow in a home garden and a great choice for those who want to get the most of their small space.
Not only is the price of fresh, organic lettuce reaching astronomical places in most locations inside and outside of the United States, but the fresh produce keep for only a short period of time in the refrigerator before spoiling. Anyone who purchased a bag of fresh baby greens only to have to toss half of it barely a week later knows the pain of wasting all those edible, healthy greens!
The good news is, anyone can grow a supply of fresh, organic, delicious lettuce leaves right there in their own home! Small space? No problem! Lettuce can even be grown indoors for those who have no access to the joys of gardening outside.
7 Tips For Growing Lettuce In Your Garden
Growing your own lettuce is a great way to get fresh, healthy greens without having to go to the store. Lettuce is a fairly easy plant to grow, but there are a few things you can do to make sure your plants are healthy and productive.
Here are 7 tips for growing lettuce in your garden:
1. Choose your lettuce wisely
Out of all the decisions you will make, this one is undoubtedly the most important. The variety you choose will have the greatest impact on the final result of your lettuce crop. Choose wisely and dine finely!
As one of the most popular vegetables around the world, lettuce, known by its scientific name as Lactuca Sativa, as been refined into thousands of different varieties. Those varieties are divided into seven main cultivar groups of lettuce, each boasting as many varieties as there are people who grew them over the eons.
Here are the 6 main groups of lettuce grown today:
Looseleaf Lettuce- Also known as leaf, cutting or bunching lettuce, this type has loosely bunched leaves and is the most widely planted. Leaf lettuce is extremely versatile and produces a quick crop, making it a great choice for home gardeners and those with small space. The best way to grow leaf lettuce is by sowing it in a thick mat, with plants spaced 2-4" apart. As soon as the plants produce leaves that are edible in size, harvest them by "mowing" your lettuce patch, taking care not to cut the main stem of your lettuce plants to allow for many succession of harvests. Grown this way, leaf lettuce will produce at least 2 harvests and commonly up to four.
Our favorite varieties of leaf lettuce include:
- Merlot Lettuce. The darkest known lettuce. Dark, burgundy red leaves have a fine taste and texture and are tolerant of a wide variety of conditions.
- Royal Oakleaf Lettuce. A classic and a workhorse in the garden. Bright green leaves are finely flavored and textured and the plants are extremely vigorous. Very cold tolerant and fast growing.
- Lollo Rosso Lettuce. Frilly and charming, this leaf lettuce is more resistant to bolting and cold conditions than most. Leaves and tinged with a beautiful pink color that turns to deep red as the weather cools.
Romaine/Cos - Used mainly for salads and sandwiches, this type forms long, upright heads. Romaine lettuce types are often sold as whole head on the market, but home gardeners can choose to harvest only the outer leaves and leave the stem intact for a longer harvest window. Romaine types are generally recognized as the most nutritious type of lettuce and are beloved for their crunchy texture and fine flavor.
Our favorite varieties of Romaine lettuce include:
Winter Density Cos Lettuce - this romaine lettuce is perfect for Fall and early Spring planting. Combining the classic taste and texture of a true Cos lettuce with exceptional cold tolerance, it can grow without protection where winter temperature do not drop below 25 F.
Rouge d'Hivers Romaine Lettuce - not as cold hardy as Winter Density, Rouge D'Hivers is nonetheless a wonderful choice for Fall and early Spring planting and is more tolerant of water temperature than its counterpart. Fresh taste and a fine texture combine with a stunning color!
Parris Island Cos Lettuce - the true classic romaine lettuce you have been craving for! Parris Island is a great choice for year round lettuce growing, with both heat and cold tolerance.
- Forellenschluss Lettuce - impressive and flashy, this tongue twister is sure to delight. With dark speckles that get darker and denser with cold weather, Forellenschluss Lettuce is as delicious as it is pretty.
Iceberg/Crisphead -The most popular type in the United States. Iceberg lettuce is very heat-sensitive and was originally developed in 1894 for growth in the northern United States by Burpee Seeds and Plants. It gets its name from the way it was transported in crushed ice, where the heads of lettuce looked like icebergs. Today, it ships well, but is low in flavor and nutritional content, being composed of even more water than other lettuce types.
Butterhead - Also known as Boston or Bibb lettuce, and traditionally in the UK as "round lettuce", this type is a head lettuce with a loose arrangement of leaves, known for its sweet flavor and tender texture.
Bibb lettuces are versatile and easy to grow, and often come in a wide variety of colors and texture. Just like the other types of lettuce, it is possible to grow them as looseleaf lettuce by sowing them thickly in rows, but to grow the typical head lettuces, a spacing of 8" on center is necessary to allow the plants space and reduce disease due to a lack of airflow.
Our favorite varieties of Butterhead lettuce include:
- Tom Thumb Lettuce - this tiny gem is extremely popular due to its diminutive size and delectable flavor. Naturally dwarf in size, Tom Thumb lettuce can be tucked away in any empty space in the garden and makes a stellar choice for container garden and those with limited space.
- Summer Bibb Lettuce - this wonderful variety is a quintessential heirloom loved for generation for its taste and ease of growth. More resistant to heat than many other varieties of lettuce, it grows fast and rewards the gardener with an ethereal texture and buttery flavor.
- Buttercrunch Lettuce - midway between a butterhead and a crisphead, this award winning American heirloom has everything a lettuce lover can ask for. Tolerant of poor soils and resistant to stress, it is slow to bolt and a great choice for summer growing.
Celtuce/Stem Lettuce - This type is grown for its seed stalk, rather than its leaves, and is used in Asian cooking, primarily Chinese, as well as stewed and creamed dishes. This exotic type of lettuce is delicious and a great choice for adventurous
Oilseed Lettuce - This type is grown for its seeds, which are pressed to extract an oil mainly used for cooking. It has few leaves, bolts quickly and produces seeds around 50 percent larger than other types of lettuce.
2. Protect your lettuce from drought
Lettuce is a shallow rooted crop that needs to be watered regularly. The key to watering lettuce is to keep the soil moist, but not wet. This is best achieve with a drip watering system that delivers water right where your plants need it most: at the root level. In fact, constant watering at the base of the plant is the key to growing specialty varieties like the Iceberg lettuce. A drip irrigation system is a good investment for any gardeners, but is not cheap.
If investing in a drip irrigation system is out of the question, water the lettuce plants in the morning so the leaves have time to dry off before nightfall. This is especially important in the cold conditions of early Spring and late Fall as damp and cold conditions tend to be a breeding ground for disease.
When exposed to dry and hot conditions, this causes the plant to experience stress. As an annual plant, lettuce will then interpret this stress as a threat to its life and turn its energy to produce a flower stalk in order to propagate its genetic material. This is called bolting and changes the flavor of the lettuce, turning it too bitter for most people's taste.
Keeping your plants well hydrated, especially through the heat of summer, is key to growing lettuce. Just be careful not to over-water, as this can lead to disease.
Balance is key. A good rule of thumb is to water enough that the soil feels damp and cool about an inch below the surface when a finger is inserted. If it feels dry, then your lettuce needs watering.
BUT, whatever you do, do not water your lettuce under the blazing sun of mid-afternoon. Watering should be done early in the morning and/or late in the afternoon, past the sun's zenith.
3. Keep your Lettuce cool
Lettuce is a cool weather crop that grows well in temperatures between 60-70 F. The plants tolerate a light frost without blinking, but any temperature consistently exceeding 90 F will cause the plants to bolt and ruin the flavor.
Choosing a suitable location throughout the growing season is one of the easiest ways to insure a constant supply of lettuce.
In the Spring and Fall, when the days are cool and the night colder, chose a full sun location where your plants will receive all the sunlight they need to grow fast and strong.
To insure your plants keep their cool in the hottest days of summer plant them in a protected spot in your garden that receives shade during the hottest parts of the day, usually between 12 noon and 4pm.
4. Start your seeds the right way
Lettuce is usually started from seed, although you can also purchase young plants from a nursery. Starting from seed is cheaper and gives you a wider variety of varieties (?!) to choose from.
If you want to get a jump on the growing season, start your lettuce seeds indoors. You can do this 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date in your area. If you start from seed indoors, sow the seeds in a flat or tray filled with seed starting mix. Sow the seeds thinly on the surface of a seed-starting mix and lightly press them in. Water the soil and place the seed tray in a warm, sunny spot. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. The seeds will germinate in 7 to 14 days.
Thin the seedlings to one per cell or pot when they are large enough to handle, usually after the first set of true leaves appear. Transplant the seedlings into the garden or larger containers when they are 4-6 weeks old. Don't forget to harden your plants for a few days by placing them outdoors a few hours at a time, increasing to a full day of exposure. This process takes about 4-6 days.
Sowing lettuce seeds directly outdoors is by far the easiest method. In most areas, you can sow the seeds directly in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. For the best result, choose a variety well adapted to the condition of your area and season. Just make sure the soil is moist and has been loosened up beforehand. Sow the seeds thinly, in rows that are about 12 inches apart. Once they sprout, thin the seedlings so they are about 8 inches apart.
5. Plan your crops for success
Just like an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a bit of planning goes a long way in ensuring you get a satisfying crop of lettuce.
To grow a satisfying Spring crop, sow you lettuce as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, or start your plants indoor 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date of the season. Lettuce is a short lived plants and will eventually go to seed no matter the variety you choose: this is simply the plant's lifecycle and there is nothing that can be done about it.
To make sure you always have fresh lettuce on hand, sow new lettuce seeds every 2 weeks, either indoors or directly outdoors. Be certain to adapt your choice of lettuce variety as the season progresses.
For a Fall crop, sow seeds in July or early August. If transplanting, set out transplants in early September.
6. Harvest your lettuce at the correct time
Lettuce can either be harvested by cutting the leaves or pulling up the entire plant. If you cut the leaves, you'll need to do so close to the base of the plant. Be sure to use a sharp knife so you don't damage the plant. This is our preferred method and leads to the largest harvest.
To harvest the entire plant, simply pull it up from the root. You'll want to do this when the plant is big enough to eat but before it starts to flower.
To summarize all this useful information, here is a nifty little condensed list! Cue the confetti!
1. Sow the seeds in well-drained soil in a sunny spot. Lettuce plants need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.
2. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Lettuce plants are susceptible to root rot, so it’s important to not overwater them.
3. Thin the seedlings to about 8 inches apart when they are about 4 inches tall.
4. Use a organic fertilizer if you want to feed your plants. Lettuce does fine in an average to below average soil, but any plant needs food from time to time.
5. Lettuce plants are susceptible to several pests, including aphids, caterpillars, and slugs. Be on the lookout for these and take steps to control them if necessary before they become an infestation.
6. Harvest your lettuce when the leaves are about the size of your palm. Larger leaves on older plants tend to have a bitter taste.
7. Lettuce is a cool-weather crop. If the daytime temperature on your chose spot stays in the mid 90s range on a consistent basis, your lettuce will bolt and have a bitter taste.
If you follow these 7 tips, you'll be on your way to growing the perfect lettuce crop in your own backyard! Lettuce is a great beginner's crop, and with a little TLC, you can enjoy fresh, homegrown salad greens all season long.